Climate Change: Why the Threat Produces Apathy, Not Action

Many people aren’t responding to mounting evidence of the huge impacts of climate change. Neuroscience helps explain why – and the key role that businesses can play in responding rationally.

Voter behavior has long held mysteries for both politicians and psychologists. Why do poor and working-class voters across the US South, for instance, still line up to support conservative candidates whose policies favor the rich, weaken the social-safety net and limit access to affordable health care?

Some in the field of moral psychology have argued that national politics is “more like religion than it is like shopping”. Entrenched notions of cultural identity, in other words, can often be more motivating than short-term policy promises.

But how to explain the paralyzing resistance to climate change action, where the risks approach existential peaks unseen in historical human experience?

Despite spending a record amount of money to sway the mid-term US elections, environmental groups and high-profile donors failed to avert a sweeping Republican victory last week, in which candidates opposing the regulation of greenhouse gases and championing the expansion of tar sands pipelines won big.

It’s not as though the facts aren’t there: the global scientific community has warned us for years about the present and future impacts of climate change linked to fossil fuel use. Earlier this month, for example, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report came out, warning of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” if carbon emissions are not halted fast.

“Science has spoken,” UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said during the report’s release. “Time is not on our side.”

With so much at stake, why do people fail to act? What’s happening inside their brains?

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Photo Credit: J E Theriot on


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